‘I felt like a fraud’: A biologist goes public about a retraction

Andrew Anderson

Retractions are the stuff of nightmares for most academics. But they aren’t necessarily a career obstacle, and sometimes may be the only way forward, according to Andrew P. Anderson, a postdoctoral researcher in the biology department of Reed College, in Portland, Ore. Last month, the journal Evolution pulled and replaced a study Anderson had conducted as a PhD student under Adam G. Jones at the University of Idaho, in Moscow. The study’s findings suggested sexual selection shaped the responsiveness of the human genome to male sex hormones. Below is a lightly edited Q&A we did with Anderson about his experience.

Retraction Watch (RW): In the summer of 2022, shortly after your paper was first published, you realized it contained a significant error. What happened?

Andrew Anderson (AA): Another research team was trying to follow up on our study using a wider group of animals and wasn’t seeing the same pattern for one of the traits we tested. They went back and tried using just our data in their calculations and got a conflicting result. So they went through our analysis and found the error in our calculations. They emailed me all the details of what they did and sent me the one line they thought I left out that would rectify the issue. They also assured me they could see how I missed it and that I probably wouldn’t be the last person to make that error. 

I was obviously not happy with the situation, I felt like a fraud and I let down my advisor. I was initially hopeful that maybe they missed something or that the other traits they didn’t verify would be okay. I emailed my co-author/adviser and began looking at their analysis to confirm my results were incorrect and theirs were correct. At that point, all I could do was thank the researcher who had emailed me for taking an interest in my work and for pointing out the error; then I asked them to give me some time to sort out my next steps.

RW: How did your adviser react when you told him?

AA: He is always supportive and straightforward. No blame or admonitions, just focusing on how we move forward. He asked if I confirmed the issue, then said we need to write a new table with the new values and write a paragraph about the changes. Then we went back and forth on those edits and a letter to Evolution explaining what happened and asking if we could submit our new table and explanation as a corrigendum.

RW: How did the journal respond?

AA: They thanked us for the documentation and told us the editorial team for the journal and corrections team for the publisher would discuss and get back to us with a decision. They took a few weeks to decide (sending us updates in between – including a notice that they were putting up an expression of concern that they had us approve), but came to the conclusion we needed to retract and resubmit. They provided us information of what we needed to do to the manuscript and told us to submit through the journal’s portal like any other manuscript.

It felt like other communications I’ve had with journal editors, and certainly once the resubmission started it was like any other paper. As with my advisor, the only thing that really mattered for the journal was making sure the information was correct. I think the focus on getting it right and providing me the opportunity to correct the record put me at ease with the process.

RW: How do you feel about the retraction?

AA: A range of feelings really. I’m happy that I got to correct the record, I know some people were reading it and using it for their research and I want them to have the right information. I’m embarrassed that I made a mistake and it’s permanently there for everyone to see. I’ve lived enough to know it’s a blip on the radar, but the timing (looking for an academic job) had me terrified. That feeling has abated more as I have gotten a lot of positive comments from other scientists.

RW: Has the retraction had any negative consequences for your career?

AA: I honestly don’t know. I’m looking for jobs right now and no one has indicated if this made a difference. I can say I have gotten interviews after the statement of concern by the journal and after the full retract/resubmit process was completed. I don’t know the results of those interviews yet, but I would guess if the retraction was a problem I wouldn’t have gotten the interviews in the first place.

RW: What were the biggest challenges for you during this experience?

AA: Not getting in my own head about what was happening. When I have heard about retractions, it’s usually about possibly unethical behavior by the scientist. I was worried that my retraction might be perceived that way. No one ever suggested malfeasance on my part. And every part of that paper is from open-source data and all my code was available since publication. My advisor always had me put the code up for others to see, and this was a great lesson that doing so not only benefits other researchers in reproducibility but also allows me to “show my work” so nothing is hidden and shows I’m doing my analysis in good faith. 

People make mistakes and I’m certainly no different. There are people and procedures in place for correcting a paper. While not common, errors and retract/resubmit seem to happen more than I realized as I was looking for how to communicate with the journal about my situation. I got through it by just telling myself this is how science is supposed to work. 

RW: Do you have any advice for others who find themselves in a similar situation?

AA: Take a breath, admit you made the mistake and reach out to the journal. They have policies and procedures in place to resolve the issue. It’s like trouble-shooting in the other parts of our work as scientists. If you made a mistake or something went wrong in the lab, you can’t ignore it, you have to fix it; the same is true with your papers. 

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3 thoughts on “‘I felt like a fraud’: A biologist goes public about a retraction”

  1. Tough lessons. I think another lesson is that, in the never ending quest for positive results, we tend to act like ratchets, quickly discarding negative results and focusing on the positive ones, sometimes to our own eventual folly.
    It seems hard to rectify as long as ‘positive’ results are typically needed for publishing, rather than demonstration of solid methodology that yields incremental advances regardless.

  2. I wish academia can distinguish the reaction due to research misconduct and because of innocent mistakes without involving any research misconduct involved. This guy is honest and nice.

  3. This is the way science should work.

    We all make mistakes.

    As a supervisor, trying to check my students’ work, they and I have missed something — usually it is a small thing, such as an incorrect conversion factor.

    I think in this case, all parties involved acted appropriatedly.

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